"I just want my daughter back. I will do anything to have my daughter back. Please give me my daughter back. I have nothing left... I don't want to live. Someone help me..."
The words of Sarala (name changed), the mother of nine-year-old Dalit girl Gudiya (name changed), who was allegedly raped, murdered and forcibly cremated in Delhi's Old Nangal area, has not stopped ringing in my ears.
As I made my way through blocked roads to Old Nangal crematorium on 3 August – where the crime took place – I witnessed the mother crying out in pain, struggling to catch her breath, and unable to even take a sip of water. I saw Dinesh (name changed), Gudiya's father, sitting quietly in a corner, not wanting to talk to media – even as other men from the village urged him to give his version to the journalists.
Cops lined the streets. Hundreds of women, social activists and lawyers sat in solidarity. And most importantly – there were political groups.
But almost one week later, the scene has completely changed.
Social Groups Jump in, Help Clueless Parents
While the government stood as a mute spectator, the social groups sprung into action. The All India Mahila Sanskritik, the women's wing of the Socialist Unity Centre of India, was one of the first groups to arrive to help Gudiya's family. The activists from the group mobilised support of other women, including from the village and otherwise, and organised a sit-in.
Anti-rape activist Yogita Bayana's viral video, talking about the incident from outside the crematorium, put media spotlight on the case. Her team has been in touch with Gudiya's parents about finding a lawyer, coordinating with the cops, among other things.
"In any robust democracy, this will not be the case. In any democracy with empathy, the parents would not have to sit in a protest to ensure that law takes its course. In any democracy with conscience, it is not the social groups, but the government that would have jumped to protect and be the voice of these parents."Reena Shakya, Dalit Activist, told The Quint
Both Sarala and Dinesh, who belong to the Valmiki community, are more than grieving parents.
"The system has failed Dalits. Today it is Gudiya's parents. Tomorrow it will be someone else's child. Underprivileged parents fighting for justice will keep changing, when is the system going to change?" Shakya asked.
Gudiya's parents too, seem to realise this. They do not know laws or whom to seek to get help – to simply get justice for their daughter. They have a voice, but they know that it is not 'privileged' enough to be heard in the corridors of power.
"The government could do a lot here. They could be fast-tracking this case in POCSO courts so that the culprits are brought to book within six months from the time the FIR is filed. They could offer police protection to the victim’s family as the risk of caste-based violence and intimidation is a real possibility. They can also provide immediate legal and financial support for the victim’s family to continue pursuing this matter till the end?"Sujata Surepally, a college professor who heads a Dalit women's collective, asks in an online petition along with Reena
To continue pursuing the matter till the end is again – privilege – one that Sarala and Dinesh lack. Soon, social media hashtags will fade away, media attention on the case will wane, protests could go on but shrink in size – but what happens to Gudiya's parents?
No Longer A Dalit Women-Led Protest And That Makes A Difference
Not only is the shrinking size of the protest a reality, it is no longer a protest led by Dalit women. On my first visit, 20-odd women, mostly locals from Old Nangal village, were sitting beside Sarala, consoling her, taking on questions from the media. Hundreds of women sat along the street to show solidarity with Gudiya's parents.
When I returned on 5 August, two days later, there were barely any women on the protest site.
"The women of this village started the protests. We blocked the road, put a tent. There were no banners, there were no demands – just justice for Gudiya. But look at this place now. Once the netas came and went and there is some attention, men want to hog the limelight. They don't like us coming forward and voicing our views," said Sonu, a resident of Old Nangal, whom I also met on 1 August.
Unlike the only protest on the street on 3 August, there were two protest sites when I returned on 5 August – one dominated by men, with a well-assembled stage, banners and lights and the original one, with barely anyone sitting there.
The women, who first helped start the protest, were refusing to sit on the stage.
"The parents are being pressurised to sit on the stage – it has been funded by netas. But we women will sit on the streets, on the protest side erected by us. We have seen this gameplay before. Erect a stage, get parents to sit, slowly get them to accept money for justice. There are many anti-social elements who are taking away the protest. Where were they when we were pulling out the half-burnt bodies of Gudiya," asked Neha, another protester who has been there from day one.
At one point of time, two different groups of men were raising slogans – one group trying to be louder than the other.
"We are here to help our sisters. They should not think that we are taking away the protest from them. We are here to raise our voice so that it is better heard," said a protester, who claimed to belong to the Kanpur chapter of Bhim Army.
Another man, who was from the village, said that women "were needed by children" and they are here to "be their voice".
When I revisited the protest site on 6 August, the crowd had shrunk further – with just a few men sitting around.
"So what happens if the father agrees to succumb to pressure and accept money to close the case? Is the mother's voice any worth? This is why it was important for the movement to be women-led," added Sonu, who is a homemaker.
Ten Dalit women were raped every day in India, official records from 2019 records show. Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar record most of these crimes.
In a 2006 study of 500 Dalit women on the forms of violence they had faced, 54 percent had been physically assaulted; 46 percent had been sexually harassed; 43 percent had faced domestic violence; 23 percent had been raped.
"This is not at all surprising. Dalit women's issues are ignored by so-called mainstream feminists saying it is a caste issue and caste groups ignore Dalit women's issues saying it is women's issue. Most Dalit women lack agency to voice their opinion and when they do, the circumstances turn unfavourable to them," Professor Surepally told The Quint.
Should the need arise, would Sarala, the mother's voice, even be heard?
Which brings me back to – how long can underprivileged, grieving parents fight without state help? At what point does this stop and the government puts a working system in place?
Until when will this apathy continue?